The Senate’s top Republican says Democrats’ sights are set on European-style socialism, and derided likely Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama’s claims of being a unifier — one of the major selling points the Illinois Democrat makes on the campaign trail.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, in a likely preview of the Republican line of attack in the general election, said Democratic leaders and Mr. Obama “get up every morning with three things on their minds: more taxes, more regulation and more litigation.”
“It’s pretty clear to me that the Democratic agenda is to turn us into France,” the Kentucky Republican told The Washington Times in an unusually blunt interview at his office in the Capitol. “Americans may want change, but the question is, what kind of change?”
As for Mr. Obama, Mr. McConnell said, the senator from Illinois, unlike his expected Republican rival in November, has never taken the lead on bipartisan legislation.
“I can’t think of a single occasion upon which [Mr. Obama] has been involved with Republicans on any meaningful legislation,” he said. “He’s a straight-line, big-government, high-taxing liberal.”
Mr. McConnell is setting aside past policy disputes with that Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. He said the Democratic Party’s push to the far left has opened the door for the maverick, who will attract independent voters and is arguably the strongest candidate Republicans could field at a time of widespread dissatisfaction with Washington.
“He’s somebody that has a demonstrated ability to reach across the aisle, to broker legislation with Democrats, and I think a large number of the American people are looking for someone who can do just that,” he said.
Mr. McConnell, who over the years expressed discomfort as Mr. McCain broke with conservatives on campaign-finance reform, taxes and immigration, said the decorated Navy fighter pilot nevertheless will win support from the Republican base, and the contrast with Mr. Obama boosts Republicans’ confidence that they can keep control of the White House.
“He will appoint the kind of judges that are important to the members of my party. I think he’s been a stalwart supporter of a strong national defense and standing up to terrorists,” he said. “I don’t have any discomfort whatsoever” with Mr. McCain’s conservative credentials.
“We haven’t had any run-ins,” said Mr. McConnell, who several years ago led an unsuccessful lawsuit to overturn the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law. “We have arguments on policy around here all the time. There’s nothing unusual about that. That’s what we do in the Senate.”
“I’m enthusiastically in his corner,” he said.
The minority leader noted that the national electorate increasingly shares his devotion to Mr. McCain, with polls showing him even with or slightly ahead of Mr. Obama.
Mr. McConnell dismissed the notion that President Bush’s unpopularity could be a political liability for Republicans. “The president is not on the ballot” this year, he said.
“This election is going to be about the next four years and where do the two candidates for president — and the members of the Senate running with them — want to take America,” Mr. McConnell said.
He said he agrees with most political analysts that the odds are “pretty slim” for Republicans to win a majority.
Republicans and Democrats each hold 49 seats, but two independents — Sens. Bernard Sanders of Vermont and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut — caucus with the Democrats, giving the party a majority. Among the seats open in November, 23 are held by Republicans and 12 are held by Democrats.
“The math is not great” for Senate Republicans, he said.
But in a legislative body that often requires 60 votes for measures to proceed, Mr. McConnell said, minority Republicans can still wield significant leverage in helping craft and pass legislation on pending major issues, such as an emergency spending bill for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and a housing measure aimed at curbing the rise in home foreclosures.
“We’re nowhere near irrelevant,” he said. “We’re going to have a significant number of Senate Republicans after the election — significant enough to have an impact in our very unusual body that happens to be the only legislative body in the world where a majority is not enough.”
Mr. McConnell said he supports a massive proposal to renew farm- and food-subsidy programs that many government watchdog groups — as well as the Bush administration — have condemned as egregious examples of government waste.
The senator from Kentucky defended a provision he included in the bill to give tax breaks for racehorse owners — a provision some opponents of the measure have held up as classic pork-barrel spending — saying it would correct long-standing unfair tax treatment for his state’s signature industry.
“Members of Congress are not going to pass bills that have no implications on their states,” he said. “Members of Congress are not likely to pass bills that give 100 percent authority over everything to any administration.”
Mr. McConnell also accused Senate Democratic leadership of slow-walking the confirmation process for three circuit court nominees that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said he would try to complete by Memorial Day.
Democrats “still have an opportunity to keep the commitment they’ve made [on the nominations], so we’ll see,” he said. “And if they don’t, stay tuned.”